Critics Say Federal Laboratories Not Charting Productive Course

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When a 1960s task force proposed the creation of a network of federal educational research laboratories, its members envisioned organizations akin to the National Institutes of Health and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Federally funded, yet independently run, the labs would tackle the toughest problems facing the nation's schools, conduct large-scale studies using the best research methods, develop innovative curricula, and experiment with new teaching approaches. Their work, the task force concluded, would be based on scientific inquiry and be free of political bias.

But that vision, according to critics and even some backers of the 10 labs now in operation, has not been realized.

Today's labs give priority to regional issues, not national ones, and they studiously avoid producing curricula. They are actively involved in shaping their own agendas and sometimes lobby Congress. And their work is often subject to political crosscurrents.

The labs have strayed so far from their starting point in 1966 that some observers say they need a complete overhaul and question whether they should continue to win a multimillion-dollar annual appropriation from Congress. The criticism comes with Congress set to consider reauthorizing legislation for the labs next year.

"If I could have the mid-'60s version [of the labs], I would have them," said Maris A. Vinovskis, a professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who studied the laboratories five years ago as a visiting scholar at the Department of Education.

And, this summer, the Heritage Foundation--a conservative Washington think tank--said the 32-year, $750 million investment in the labs "has had little impact in revolutionizing education in America's schools."

Regional Response

The labs' directors counter that their organizations are succeeding precisely because they have evolved into regional institutions that respond directly to the needs of state and local officials--many of whom are active members of their governing boards.

"If you ask six people what the labs should do, you get every kind of answer," said Jeri Nowakowski, the executive director of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in suburban Chicago and the chairwoman of the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group of federally funded labs and research centers. "No matter how successful we are, it seems like somebody changes the report card in the end."

"You've got 10 labs, and they are very different from one another," added Glen Harvey, the chief executive officer of WestEd, the San Francisco-based laboratory for four Western states. "There are boards that are trying to tell them what needs are at the regional and local level. That makes a tremendous difference in what they do."

But Mr. Vinovskis contends that the labs that exist today don't produce consistently good work, yet they enjoy the security of five-year federal contracts. The labs, he and other critics say, should be forced to bid on projects piece by piece like other education contractors.

Other critics of the labs go further. Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, and Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Education Department's top research official under President Reagan, called the labs "the greediest vultures of the school establishment" in a 1997 article for The Weekly Standard, a conservative political magazine.

The 10 federally financed labs are now in the third year of the five-year contracts each of them won in 1995. Most of the labs are independent organizations, but three are housed on university campuses. (See box, this page.)

The contract for each organization calls for providing services to schools in its region. For example, the Northeast lab is reviewing school-based management in New York City and convening a group of Boston principals to share ideas on how to operate under the city's standards-based reform program.

"There's a move away from where the labs worked with intermediaries and were at an arm's length from the classroom," said Robert M. Stonehill, the director of the Department of Education's division of state and local services, which oversees the labs. "There's very much a renewed emphasis on improving teaching and learning." For example, he said, the mid-Atlantic lab based in Philadelphia is working directly with six schools in Washington where it has emphasized teaching skills and helped improve students' test scores.

In addition, each lab must serve as the national clearinghouse on a specific topic. As the expert on technology, the North-Central lab, for example, has set up a World Wide Web site, produced audiotapes, and is creating CD-ROMs to help teachers restructure their lesson plans to match new standards.

Gradual Evolution

The system has evolved slowly during the three decades since the labs were first established. But it differs markedly from the Great Society vision conceived by a task force headed by John W. Gardner, shortly before he became President Johnson's secretary of health, education, and welfare in 1965.

In 1964, the Gardner task force saw the need for organizations dedicated to "the development and dissemination of educational innovations." It envisioned that the labs would create experimental schools where they could test ideas before sharing them with schools throughout the country.

By contrast, the labs of the 1990s are governed by contracts from the Education Department that set out extensive lists of activities they must complete, and none of the labs operates an independent school. Most of their work responds to requests from state agencies and local districts, the labs' directors say, and most of the labs supplement their budgets with other federal and state contracts. Some seek grants from private philanthropies for specific projects. WestEd, for example, is coordinating a school reform project in the San Francisco Bay area underwritten by the Annenberg Foundation.

The original vision was left behind, in part, because of controversies over curriculum development in the mid-1970s, Mr. Vinovskis said. Ironically, it wasn't the work of the labs that caused the problems.

The center of the storm was an elementary social studies course developed with National Science Foundation money. The curriculum--called Man: A Course of Study--drew criticism from conservatives for its treatment of evolution and other sensitive subjects. The complaints led to congressional inquiries into other federally funded curriculum projects.

In response, the U.S. Office of Education--part of the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and the precursor to the current Education Department--said the labs should emphasize the synthesis of existing research and added that curriculum development should be undertaken only for "limited purposes," according to Mr. Vinovskis' report based on the research he did for the Education Department.

The closest the labs have gotten to curriculum issues in recent years was a compilation of various groups' voluntary national academic standards, which the Mid-Continent Regional Education Laboratory in Aurora, Colo., published in 1995.

Each lab is governed by a group of high-level education officials, such as chief state school officers and deans of colleges of education. And the labs respond to the needs expressed by those leaders.

They are the "epitome of locally controlled research institutions," the labs' trade group said in its response to the Heritage Foundation report. Nevada, for example, has tapped WestEd's help in writing standards, implementing school reform models, and planning to expand the use of technology in the classroom.

"For me, WestEd is a way to build capacity without adding full-time staff," said Mary L. Peterson, Nevada's state schools superintendent and a WestEd board member. "It's the humanpower that we as a small agency have trouble finding."

K. Penney Sanders, a former director of the Kentucky General Assembly's office of education accountability, said the state turned to the Appalachia Educational Laboratory for "invaluable" data.

While critics of the labs most typically have been conservatives, state leaders use labs' services regardless of their ideology.

Linda C. Schrenko, Georgia's Republican state superintendent, for instance, praised the SouthEastern Regional Vision for Education in recent congressional testimony.

It's such testimony that fuels funding increases, Mr. Vinovskis said. The labs are effective in mining the annual federal spending bills for money over and above their annual appropriation, which was set at $51 million for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

Last year, in what Mr. Vinovskis called a "sweetheart deal," Congress set aside $5 million from a new $150 million school reform program for the labs to help in identifying programs with proven track records for schools to follow and to evaluate the success of the programs. The money might have been better spent by issuing competitive bids for contracts to do the work, Mr. Vinovskis argued.

But the labs were the perfect place to direct the money, according to C. Todd Jones, the president of the trade group that represents the labs and other federally funded research centers.

The program "needed a fast start. It needed experienced people to handle it," Mr. Jones said. "Those are appropriate justifications for how it was done. If not the labs, who else would you go to?"

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 1, 25

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Critics Say Federal Laboratories Not Charting Productive Course
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